Faking demos

7 09 2011

There was something very fishy on the Great British Bake-off on BBC2 the other night and it wasn’t a haddock cupcake. From what I could see they faked a science experiment…

I was surprised to see a science section in the show. Not even Heston gets to do actual science on his cookery shows so to see Mike Hoyland, a chemist and science presenter from the University of Leeds, was a pleasant surprise.

Here is the clip from the show. Press play to see the important bit or scroll back to see the whole piece.

Did you spot the fakery? And, I guess more importantly, does it really matter?

First to the fakery. If you have ever performed this demo or witnessed it live then you will know that as soon as the flour is introduced there is normally a reaction or the candle will be blown out. The edit makes it look as if the reaction occurs on the second pump. In reality if it doesn’t happen first time you will need to reset, pumping more air in will make no difference. This picture shows me performing a similar reaction on stage. I used a blowtorch because candle flames were too easily blown out.

And when we do actually see the reaction there is a distinct “explosion” sound. I would be very surprised if such a large, squashy, relatively light-weight plastic box would make such a sound. I’m certain this has been added in post-production. It is possible to make this reaction explode and that’s why it is often performed inside a paint tin (the loosely fitted lid is forced of with a nice loud popping sound). Anyway out in the open like this even if they were able to record the noise it made I doubt there would also be the dramatic echo effect we hear.

So does it matter? Yes. Absolutely. As science communicators we should *never* fake demos.

Until I get a chance to speak with the scientist in this clip I totally absolve him of any complicity in this fakery. I’m sure he had nothing to do with how it was finally cut and would have been given no say in how the footage was used. And I don’t mind too much the ridiculous added “jeopardy” although any curious seven year old will be asking their parents why the presenter needs eye protection and ear defenders and had to move to a safe distance whilst the experimenter stands next to it without anything. But I do mind the way this demo has been “sexed up” purely to make for a more exciting clip.

On TV, on stage or in the classroom, if you don’t think your demo is exciting enough find another way to do it or do a different demo.

The whole point of science is that it systematically attempts to discover, record and replicate patterns in nature. As science communicators our job is to capture the methods and accuracy of science whilst making it easier for a lay audience to understand.

The way this demo is presented gives a false impression of what actually happens when flour ignites. By pumping the bellows twice it makes it look as if pressure was building up in the system. This is very misleading as it is purely the air and powder mix that causes the reaction. And by adding the sound effect they are pretending that there is more to this reaction than there actually is.

But more importantly when a demo is faked not only are we presenting something that hasn’t actually occurred but we are abusing the trust that the public gives us as scientists. Once that abuse of trust has been detected the pubic rightfully begins to doubt more and more of what they see as science. We are trying to convince people that science is factual. When we fake demos we risk losing our credibility, and not just our own, the credibility of everyone involved in our wonderful profession.

Have a look at this cool video. This is one of my favourites. This is how explosions on TV should be done. And what else would we expect from the show that “delves fearlessly into the mysteries of science… is a breathless ride through the wild world of the weird and wonderful… and that does all of those things that you’re too scared to do at home”, Brainiac.

Impressive, huh? Everyone remembers those amazing science lessons when the chemistry teacher dropped bits of reactive metal into water. If you are as old as me it was done without a safety screen and the teacher and a boy in the front row got hit by hot metal too. How cool to see it on such a big scale…

The only problem is that his isn’t what happens when you drop these chemicals into a bath of water. Both of these reactions were caused by explosives set up in the baths. What you’ve just seen wasn’t real, it was a fake.

How do you feel? Cheated? Angry? I was when I saw it. Does it make you more or less likely to watch Brainiac? Would it make you more or less likely to believe what you are told by a scientist?

The production team wanted to show off an impressive reaction to their TV audience. They wanted to recreate what we all remember from school but on a bigger scale. There is nothing wrong with their intention. The only problem is that when they tried it the real reaction, 2g of rubidium, would have looked like this.

[The chemistry behind the reaction and a series of other videos showing alkali metals and water have been produced by Theodore Gray and can be found here LINK. To the best of my knowledge the scientists working on the Brainiac show didn’t know that the demos were going to be faked by the production team just as I’m sure the scientist on the Bake-off show didn’t know either.]

In a way I can understand why they faked it with explosions but I can’t forgive them for doing it. It is expensive to get a crew together only to find out that your reaction isn’t as amazing as you thought it was going to be. It is a hassle to either have to re-edit or even re-shoot.

But if you are going to claim the respectability and demand the trust that millions of scientists have built up over hundreds of years then you cannot fake what happened. [And if you are going to fake what happens you should at least hide the black wires that lead to your explosives that you’ve fed into your bath tub].

Both Brainiac and The Great British Bake-off claimed to be showing “science”. By faking what they showed they both misled the public and abused the trust that the public rightly has in science. For these reasons faking demos is something we should never do.

The really sad part of the Brainiac clip is that this is a spectacular reaction and there is no reason to blow up a bath:

And the fact that as you progress through the periodic table the reactions don’t get more energetic should have been something that a science show- however jokey the show is trying to be- should have explored rather than ignored and worse, faked.




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